In 2006, Wal-Mart approached the city of Lompoc, California to super-size its discount store. The current Wal-Mart store #1989 is located on West Central Avenue. At the time, Wal-Mart was seeking to take the 109,838 s.f. store and replace it with a store of roughly 207,505 s.f.
On December 26, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had finally submitted an expansion plan to the city, but scaled the store back to ‘only’ $151,271 s.f., or 73% of the original plan. “We’ve seen strong consumer response to our grocery offerings,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told MSNBC. “We’re looking forward to helping Lompoc customers save money on their groceries.” But the Wal-Mart expansion turned out to be a multi-year project. First the city had to conduct an environmental impact report under state law, and the proposal had to be reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission.
The plan Wal-Mart gave the city at the close of 2008 would expand the existing building from the rear of the building, give the building a new ‘skin’ on the front, and remodel the insides. Wal-Mart claimed the expansion would create about 100 jobs — but this was a gross figure, and did not net out the jobs that would be lost at existing grocery stores in the city, such as Albertsons, Safeway and Vons. Wal-Mart wanted to get a liquor license to go with their expanded store, but state officials told the retailer that Lompoc was “oversaturated” with liquor stores.
The state’s ruling gave the Lompoc Police the discretion to grant or oppose the liquor license for Wal-Mart. The cops said no, arguing that there were already 13 liquor licenses in Lompoc, and the community can only support 7, according to a “crime map.”
Back in 2006, when Wal-Mart first approached the city about a supercenter, the retailer had a completely different 37 acres of land in mind. Wal-Mart had chosen one of the only pieces of industrial land left in the city. The city realized that if they allowed Wal-Mart to build a new superstore — they were going to be left with the ‘old’ discount store — and the empty box could sit unoccupied for years.
By expanding their existing store, Wal-Mart would also not have to ask for a rezoning, which could have led to a contentious battle in the city. Lompoc’s Mayor at the time, Dick DeWees, concurred that an expanded store on site made a lot more sense than leaving the city with a dead box. “Expanding on the existing site is much more preferable than building a brand new store,” the Mayor told MSNBC. “The last thing we want is to have them build a new store and have the old store stand vacant.”
Two years after shrinking the size of their ambitions, Wal-Mart is back in the news in Lompoc. Wal-Mart had taken its plans to the Lompoc Planning Commission — which rejected the plan three months ago in October of 2010.
The Commission told Wal-Mart that its environmental impact report, required under California law, did not sufficiently deal with the issue of urban decay — a controversial point that has stymied a number of Wal-Mart plans. But Wal-Mart exercised its right to appeal the Planning Commission vote, and took its case directly to the Lompoc City Council, a political body, not a land use planning agency.
When Wal-Mart showed up at the City Council last week, it was a standing room only crowd, according to KSBY News. The backdrop for the hearing was the fact that Lompoc has an unemployment rate of 16%, and the giant retailer was promising that their expansion would create new jobs. But not everyone in the room believed that line. “With Wal-Mart being able to expand and knock out those small businesses, there is no incentive for anyone to want to open other businesses here,” one resident said.
Opponents focused on the fact that the expansion was just about adding groceries to the existing Wal-Mart. “We are already well served by Vons, Albertsons, Fresh and Easy, and within feet from Walmart, Foods Co. Do we need another grocery? No,” another Lompoc resident told the City Council.
Despite the large turnout against the expansion, on January 18th the Lompoc City Council voted unanimously to overturn the vote of their own Planning Commission, and approve the Wal-Mart expansion. The Lompoc Record described the City Council hearing as a “five hour grind-it-out meeting.” The final vote took place shortly before midnight, with the Council approving the Wal-Mart environmental report. This vote allows Wal-Mart to bring its expansion plans back to the Planning Commission for a review of the development plan itself. So the project as presented is not over. The Commission indicated that it will review the development plan in February or March.
Wal-Mart called the decision a “huge step forward for job creation and increased economic stimulation for the Lompoc community.” “We appreciate the council’s decision to uphold our appeal and certify the EIR,” a public affairs spokesman for the company told the Council. Wal-Mart claimed that its lengthy environmental report had “thoroughly analyzed every aspect of this project. …”
Now that the City Council has voted, it is possible that local residents may appeal the decision, and send the case to court, rather than to the Planning Commission.
It turns out that at least three of the City Councilors were very conflicted over their vote in support of Wal-Mart. “I am very frustrated,” Councilor Cecilia Martner told The Record, “because I happen to not like Wal-Mart and I don’t shop in Wal-Mart. But none of that has any relevance.” Martner admitted that Wal-Mart will be detrimental to the community — but she felt “boxed in, legally” and had no choice but to vote for the environmental report. “They have done their homework with all the urban decay studies and they have a good case, and I don’t have a good case,” she told the newspaper. “I will be voting to grant the appeal, much to my dissatisfaction.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Councilor Ashley Costa, who said the City Council was not allowed to consider the social and economic impacts of the expansion project. She said the project met the legal standards of the California Environmental Quality Act. She suggested that area residents unhappy with the Wal-Mart project should not shop there. “Your pocketbook is your voice,” she said.
A third Councilor, Bob Lingl, said he found no evidence that the expansion project would lead to urban decay in Lompoc, which was defined as boarded up, abandoned buildings. “We don’t have that here; we won’t have it if we uphold the environmental impact study,” he noted.
It turns out the Council’s conclusion on the subject of urban decay was influenced by the Councilors’ concerns about being sued by Wal-Mart if they turned the project down. One councilor asked the city’s attorney if the envioronmental plan submitted by Wal-Mart met the legal standards. “In my opinion, yes,” the city lawyer answered. That meant if the Council voted down the plan, they could be facing a lawsuit, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend their decision.
Lompoc Mayor John Linn worried that the environmental report may have underestimated the number of existing grocery stores that could be forced to close because of Wal-Mart’s additional grocery sales.
The environmental report suggested that only one might close. That report was done by a consultant called Impact Sciences, which was retained by the city, but which got much of its information from Wal-Mart.
Mayor Linn was concerned that the report done in Lompoc looked very similar to conclusions done for Wal-Mart in other cities in California. But Wal-Mart said it had had “no discussions” with Impact Sciences.
The Mayor is going to end up with at least one dead grocery store in the city, perhaps more. Communities are starting to understand the trade-offs involved in a Wal-Mart supercenter. When Wal-Mart builds a new supercenter, they often abandon their discount store nearby, and other grocery stores close as well.
In the same week that this Lompoc story appeared in 2008, another story was told in American Canyon, California, where a new supercenter was celebrating its one year anniversary. The opening of the American Canyon store was accompanied by the closing of the nearby Vallejo store — a reality that opponents of the American Canyon store pointed out at the time. Vallejo officials ended up losing their store, watching sales tax revenue decline, and doing nothing about it — because in California the idea of regional land use planning is undermined by the search for sales tax revenues.
Because California has a limit on property tax levy increases, and sales taxes are kept locally, communities engage in ‘cash box zoning,’ which is just an elaborate game of retail musical chairs, in which one city tries to steal the other city’s mall away. Even though California has a revenue-adjusting law to prevent communities from stealing their neighbor’s stores — it does not seem to have made much of a difference in places like American Canyon, where Wal-Mart’s opening cause a Wal-Mart closing the next city over.
This kind of leapfrog development by Wal-Mart has been going on for a least fifteen years, when the giant retailer began a deliberate strategy of shutting down its discount stores in favor of more profitable supercenters. During the early 2000s, Wal-Mart had as many as 350 “dark stores” on the market. The number of dead stores today is around 200.
In Lompoc’s case, city officials were right to steer the retailer towards expansion — and this is consistent with Wal-Mart’s latest growth plans, which call for expansion of stores instead of new construction of supercenters. Yet the factor that Lompoc officials have ignored is that another big grocery store will lead to one or two empty grocery stores anyway. The “saturation” in Lompoc is not just liquor licenses — its grocery stores as well, and adding the new supercenter brings no added value to the Lompoc economy.
Readers are urged to email Lompoc Mayor John Linn at: [email protected] with the following message:
“Dear Mayor Linn, Lompoc was right to urge Wal-Mart not to build a new supercenter, but to reuse their existing store on West Central Avenue. But your city is saturated with grocery stores, and the members of the Council know that you will end up with one or more shuttered grocery stores.
A study by Retail Forward concluded that for every new Wal-Mart superstore, two grocery stores would close. Whether the empty store ends up being a Safeway, Albertson’s or Von’s doesn’t really matter to taxpayers — the fact is this Wal-Mart supercenter adds no real value to the Lompoc economy.
Wal-Mart today builds supercenters that are 80,000 s.f., and the company says it wants to focus on these smaller stores instead of the huge dinosaur footprints of the past.
The existing store in Lompoc is large enough to simply be reformatted into a supercenter. Now that this project is in the development plan stage, you should take the lead in asking the Planning Commission to insist on what retailers call an ‘in-box conversion,’ where Wal-Mart takes its existing store on West Central Avenue and reformats it anyway it wants — no added land wasted, and no permits needed. A larger store means more traffic and crime.
Your leadership is needed to make Wal-Mart realize that their existing store is big enough already to switch over to a superstore. Make them use what they have responsibly, and not always be asking for bigger and bigger footprints.”